Released in the late 1990s, the LDS Sunday School manual cycle is almost 20 years old now (though it was undergoing development for a number of years prior to being released, so I tend to view it as roughly being of drinking age). Because it's only encountered once every four years (for a total now of four times only so far) that may seem surprising to many readers. Twenty years is a long time; a lot can, and has, changed in the LDS Church and in the population of active membership during that time. So it's interesting to me that some issues that seem to be much more of a problem to the Church in the 2010s are problems that this manual produces in the early 1990s is aware of. And, of course, there are some other issues that have become much more problematic since the initial publication, to the point that there are a number of points in lessons, not to mention two entire lessons themselves, that seem tone-deaf to the issues of the modern LDS Church. Together, this shows the ever-increasing problem presented by the age of the current LDS Sunday School materials: they exhibit none of the modern LDS Church's flexibility when it comes to dealing with its own internal problems.
Of course, these issues have been best highlighted to myself personally through the careful production of what I call the "Inverse Bible": a hypothetical document that contains scriptures from the Hebrew Bible (which many Christians call the "Old Testament") that will almost never be encountered in the average LDS Sunday School class. The production of such a collection of chapters and verses, however, has also involved the creation, on my own, of what I've begun to call the "Sunday School Bible" which is the inverse of the Inverse Bible: it is the Bible composed only of the scriptures you would encounter in the average LDS Sunday School. To put it another way, if you went to an LDS Sunday School carrying this heavily-abridged collection you would never encounter a situation where you could not read verses from your book to participate in the lesson's discussion.
It's in the dividing line between these two puzzle pieces of the full Hebrew Bible that I've found the most interesting issues.
Milk and Meat
First off the bat is the fact that the Sunday School Bible is composed mostly of easily-digested stories and narrative. There are few examples of difficult-to-parse symbolic language, few examples of foreign customs and ancient culture, and very little poetry and prophecy. Instead, the Sunday School Bible is a Bible of people (usually men, even more than the complete Hebrew Bible). The Sunday School Bible is not nearly as concerned with what God has to say than with who God has assigned to speak his words. Through this focus on narrative history, the Sunday School Bible is a book that is almost entirely ignorant of the exile from Israel and Judah, instead preferring to focus on stories. Because of this ignorance, even the few prophecies that remain within the work are easily re-interpreted into prophecies of a future second coming of Jesus ad/or the founding of the LDS Church.
In contrast, the Inverse Bible is heavy with difficult prophecy, prose, and arcana. Most of the thickest books of the Hebrew Bible (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job, for example) are present in the Inverse Bible, usually in long uninterrupted segments of multiple chapters. The Hebrew Bible is a library of works that is vastly influenced by the invasions and conquests of the Assyrians and the Babylonians who destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, respectively. The Inverse Bible is full of the prophecies by various prophets of Yahweh promising destruction and bloodshed, and statements of the anger of Yahweh against pretty much every country of the world known to the ancient Israelites, including their own. The destruction, and promised restitution, of these kingdoms occupies the majority of the text contained in the Inverse Bible.
There is at least one problem with the Sunday School Bible's dependence upon the use of stories and narrative: stories use details to ground them in the real world (to a certain extent), and one story often leads to another. The problem is that this connected chain of stories is much like a rocky river where one flat stretch of relatively calm water and quickly lead to a small cataract of trouble. The Inverse Bible is not fully absent of narrative, but instead has some stories or even small pieces of stories as the Sunday School Bible attempts to deftly step around these issues without anyone noticing. Of course, these attempts aren't always very successful.
The authors of the LDS Sunday School manual are aware of many of the aspects of the stories from the Pearl of Great Price and the Hebrew Bible that strain credulity in a modern audience. The Inverse Bible is full of stories of fantastical creatures like giants, stories of Yahweh's prophets and patriarchs doing disturbing things, and examples of Yahweh's often violent rhetoric against Israel's enemies. Even the Pearl of Great Price doesn't escape unscathed; only the Inverse Bible contains Enoch's people being threatened by giants, spontaneously emerging islands where humans settle, Abraham's astronomical explorations, the stories of the founding of Egypt after the flood, and, most obviously, Moses 7:22. This one verse sits all alone in the Inverse Bible, the Bible that your average LDS member is never going to read. The Sunday School Bible silently implores the reader to skip over this verse while reading along through the chapter. It's of little doubt why this would be.
This old problem of the Temple Ban against black members was obviously something the Church wished people would just ignore even back in the mid-1990s as the current manual cycle was being developed. The Sunday School Bible skips over the people of Cain being black, skips over how Pharaoh could not have the Priesthood due to his ancestry, and the cursing of Canaan by his grandfather Noah. On the one hand, this is a good thing. These are the scriptures that lay behind decades of racist thought and teachings in the LDS Church. On the other hand, just because they're not read anymore doesn't mean they're gone or repudiated. The fact that a racism-sized hole exists in the Sunday School Bible does not amount to an apology or repentance for the ecclesiastical sins of the organization. The existence of this hole amounts to nothing more than a hope, faint in the Internet age, that the Mormon Church will somehow, someday, just forget about the Temple Ban against black members. Until this issue is dealt with the hole will simply become more and more obvious.
Not helping matters is the Sunday School manuals complete blindness to other racist issues that failed to die and have persevered from 1978 relatively unscathed. The Sunday School Bible still makes use of the story of Abraham's servant being sent to obtain a wife from his estranged family instead of from the local Canaanite population as an example of the importance of "Marrying in the Covenant". The only problem is that the scriptures in this lesson were used during the most extreme days of racist rhetoric from Church leadership as divine instruction against inter-marriage between blacks and whites. The continuing presence of this lesson and it's emphasis of the "right" way to court and marry (within the faith) is an unfortunate legacy from before 1978 and has become increasingly outdated in the modern LDS Church.
Interestingly, while there is an entire lesson about this issue that uses Rebekah and Isaac as the main example, the strong pronouncements against intermarriage from Ezra, Nehemiah, and some of the minor prophets, for the Levitical priests are absent from the Sunday School Bible. Apparently, the Sunday School Bible wants its readers to be inspired to marry the right kind of person by Rebekah, but doesn't want it's readers to be inspired to fix incorrect marriages by Ezra. But in the end, it might be a better Sunday School if even this story about "marriage in the covenant" were removed into the never-read Inverse Bible.
"The fastest growing Church" was the common rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s (in fact, it's still not uncommon to hear it repeated even in the mid-2010s). It may have been true at a few points in the 1980s, but that growth had technically begun to slow in the mid-1990s, and is now nearly stagnated when the actual activity and devotion of the membership is taken into account. Because it was produced at the end of this period of growth the Sunday School Bible is completely oblivious to the challenges faced by the LDS Church's growth rate.
Part of the common narrative during the period of accelerated growth was the attention given to Daniel's famous interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a human figure of various materials smashed by a rough stone that becomes a world (Daniel 2). Daniel interprets for the king that the materials of the figure represent a succession of nations which will culminate in a kingdom that will never be destroyed. Christians have often interpreted the rock "cut without hands" that fills the world as either the Christian movement or the Kingdom of God that accompanies the Parousia. Mormons similarly viewed the kingdom represented by the rock as the Kingdom of God, but extended the symbolism that the Kingdom of God is synonymous with the LDS Church and that the process of expanding to fill the earth was ongoing during the present time. The growth of the LDS Church was equated to Daniel's vision and was thus seen as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Of course, difficulties arise in this interpretation as the membership has gradually become aware that "all is not well in Zion". In 2014 you are much more likely to hear people equate the LDS Church to other less-impressive scriptures, such as Christ's parable of the yeast that causes the bread to rise. The more-common narrative now is that the Church is small, will always be small, has always been understood to remain small before the Second Coming. Except for the lesson in the Sunday School manual that focuses on the book of Daniel. With some lip-service paid to Daniel's refusing the king's food and the LDS Word of Wisdom, the bulk of the lesson focuses on the king's dream and Daniel's interpretation with the LDS Church being specifically taught as the kingdom represented by the stone that fills the world.
This particular scripture has even been removed from the Seminary Scripture Mastery list, a collection of 100 scriptures that valiant LDS youth are expected to memorize. The modern LDS Church has already begun to adapt both officially and culturally to a rapidly deceleration growth rate, so it is more than odd to see an entire lesson meant to excite the membership about growth.
A Skewed Perspective
As I've said numerous times already, the largest problem presented by the Inverse and Sunday School Bibles is the skewed perspective a reader will come away from the texts with. The Hebrew Bible is an ancient library of many different texts by many different authors with many different purposes for writing. The Sunday School Bible has been correlated into a single book that gives the false impression of a unified voice speaking both in harmony with itself as well as together with other books of scripture such as the New Testament or the Book of Mormon.
This is unfortunate as often the original purpose of a particular book might be completely abandoned. Judges, instead of being a pro-monarchy propaganda piece focusing on the lack of control exhibited by the Israelites before the monarchy was instituted, becomes a collection of happy stories telling the same boring lesson as the first half of the Book of Mormon: that the righteous are blessed by Yahweh and the wicked are punished. The lack of stories from the Deuteronomistic history of 1 Samuel to 2 Kings that show Yahweh's unstoppable ability to directly interfere in the social structure of humans (sometimes violently, sometimes humorously) turns it in a collection of safe, little stories about safe, righteous people being led by safe, quiet revelation.
It's not that I think the Hebrew Bible contains truths that need to be heard, either true history or true theology. I don't think it does, for the most part. Most of the history has been rewritten, reinvented, or blatantly invented for the purposes of the authors, and I really doubt that the dense prophetic poetry of Isaiah and Jeremiah can be easily understood by anyone. But it is simply not fair to this artifact from the ancient world to treat it like a time machine for modern Mormonism to somehow exist in the ancient world. It's not unlike the caricatures often made of Mormonism by outside voices. It's not fair, it's not nice, and, above all, it is pompous and presumptuous to approach the Hebrew Bible without acknowledging its Hebrew origins.
A New Manual
To the astute it may appear that I have painted a picture of the Sunday School Bible where it is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. It has a racism-sized hole in it that need to be acknowledged, but it also presented doctrines and interpretations that no longer apply to Mormonism that need to be discarded. It may seem that the LDS Sunday School Bible just can't win.
In a certain sense, it can't. To make any attempt to cram a fair and thorough study of the entire collection of texts in an hour (often less than an hour) a week for 52 weeks means failure before you even begin. You're going to have to make difficult choices as to what gets covered and what does not. I understand that.
My problem isn't so much in the holes and the unnecessary parts represented by the Inverse Bible and the Sunday School Bible: it's in the presence of the Inverse Bible itself. Why has this project been possible in the first place? Why do we have a system of study that has remained unchanged with the four-year cycle for decades? Why are there verses that will never be read or explored?
I understand that the process of creating a manual like this can be difficult, but in my opinion avoiding the drawbacks of assembling and translating lessons is not worth the end result where the majority of believers in a biblical religion are completely and utterly illiterate when it comes to the majority of the Hebrew Bible. As a people, Mormons have lost more than just an understanding of the Hebrew Bible as it stands. They've lost the ability to explore their scriptures communally. The modern LDS Church has forgotten how to debate, inquire, and read their scriptures with each other as individuals and as fellow believers. They have little cultural ability to explore multiple points of view about their texts simultaneously and without argument. They have very little patience for questions with no good answers. We've lost this, and I think one of the reasons that devout Judaism, whether orthodox or reform, has held onto this culture of discussing their scriptures instead of just reading them is because they spend time on all of the books they have, even the messy ones that simply cannot be easily read.
Imagine how the LDS Sunday School would be made more interesting if they had to cover the Inverse Bible as part of their lessons. They can read about Yahweh sending a lying spirit into the prophets of Israel and discuss the implications. They can read about Saul prophesying so hard that he loses all control and instead of continuing on his quest to destroy David is instead sidetracked for a time as he strips off his clothes and helplessly issues prophecy. They can talk about the land raised up out of the water for the giants in the days of Enoch and wonder what the hell any of that means. They can read the apocalypticism of Daniel and Ezekiel without having a pre-existing interpretation which they may or may not agree with upon further personal thought handed to them to simply accept as given.
My problem with the Inverse Bible is that there is an Inverse Bible. The LDS people believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but they simply do not read it. The main culprit for this is that the pre-written chunks of scripture for the lessons were chosen years and years ago and have remained unchanged. We need a dynamic approach to all four years of study where every year will yield new treasures to discover (and sometimes new trash to deride).